Makerere University closed shop yesterday, hardly two weeks into the new semester. The closure came after authorities running the country’s oldest university failed to break a deadlock over a strike by academic staff who are demanding enhanced pay and clearance of their pensions arrears.
Fear of a threat by students to join the weeklong lecturers’ strike prompted the sudden closure and saw the university campus, from the gate through to the halls of residence, turned into a mini garrison with hundreds of heavily armed police.
Students were sent packing and ordered home as were their lecturers, and were handed less than four hours to vacate the university precincts. The university’s top governing body, Makerere University Council, issued the directive yesterday afternoon.
Panicky students, especially those reporting for their first year quickly, contacted their parents and relatives around Kampala to move them out a situation that quickly led to heavy traffic around Wandegeya and the University campus following the afternoon Council announcement.
“My parent had just paid shs1.5 million for me to come to study but I am so disappointed I have to go back home,” said Hellen Komugabe, an ICT student, as she waited for her parents to pick her up at Complex Hall.
This is the second time in four years that Makerere University has been closed following unrest over wage demands by lecturers. In November 2007, the university was shut down for up to two months as lecturers lay down their tools and students turned rowdy over failure to study.
Several parents and students appeared visibly distressed and admitted in interviews with this newspaper that the closure would take its toll on them. “We paid a lot of money for our kids to join a great institution but now we have to take them home. I wonder if our money will be refunded if the University fails to re-open,” said Matthias Kawaddwa, a parent whose daughter had just been admitted.
By last evening, some students, including their leaders had vowed not to heed the Council’s decision to return home. “We can’t accept going back, we left our homes and parents to come and study and besides some of us do not have transport back home,” said Deputy Guild President Doreen Nyanjura.
The Kampala Metropolitan Police Commander Grace Turyagumanawe said that the university administration had liaised with Police to arrange transport for students.
“We have hired buses and financial assistance for such students to enable them get to their homes in time,” Mr Turyagumanawe said. By press time, however, none of the buses had arrived.
The university’s closure follows a two week sit-down strike by academic staff in demand for a pay raise and payments of up to Shs 16.7 billion in pension arrears.
Lecturers also demanded that top up allowances that University administrators get be scrapped and that government takes full responsibility of the payroll instead of the now shared salary payment between the University and Ministry of Public Service.
Mr Louis Kakinda, spokesperson for the academic staff said lecturers would continue to strike until government settles their grievances. “It is now or never, they either settle our issues or we will not go back to lecture rooms because we also need to live a better life that matches the kind of work we do,” he said.
Mr Charles Wana-Etyem, chairman of the University council, argued yesterday that while it was unfortunate to close the university, the decision was the best step to take. “It is so sad but we have to take the responsibility of whatever will come out of this. The lecturers have chosen to abandon lecture rooms and we must take this decision as we wait for what is next,” he said.
In a press statement, however, Mr Wana said all faculties would remain closed until further notice, with the exception of the College of Health Sciences. “The students at the College of Health Sciences will be relocated to one Hall of Residence in liaison with the Dean of Students and arrangements are being made to accommodate international students and students with disabilities until advised otherwise,” he said, adding, “When the University re-opens, the University will re-imburse the equivalent transport funds used by the students to travel back home.”
CLOSURES OF VARSITY
• Black Tuesday, March 1976: University student and Kibuli secondary school teacher Paul Sserwanga is shot dead days to the end of the semester. Students led by Kagata Namiti, Kiyemba Mutale, Chris Opoka and Garuga Musinguzi mobilised the biggest student demonstration during the regime of Idi Amin. “We matched in a sea of students from Makerere to the town centre, the soldiers and police simply looked on,” remembers Chris Opoka, it was the biggest ever such defiant student action against Amin.
• In June when the University was to re-open a new strike was organised led by among others Chapaa Karuhanga but it was crashed by the police and the military.
• 1990. Students strike, protesting end of boom, police shoot and kill two students sparking a major riot. Norbert Mao, current President General of the Democratic Party and former Presidential hopeful was Guild President. Students carry the caskets bearing the remains of their colleagues to the gate of Parliament. The University was closed but re-opened unconditionally.
• Since President Museveni took power, the University has been closed at least four times, in 1989, 1990, 2006 and 2011.